|Gunness with her three children. 1908|
It's true. Gunness was born in Selbu, Norway in 1859 and christened Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset. Little is known of her origins and some stories are contradictory, but the legend goes that she showed up at a country dance pregnant. A rich boy there kicked her in the abdomen, causing her to miscarry, and was never prosecuted for it. Family and friends reported that her personality changed markedly at that point, and she was never the same again.
Eventually she followed a sister to America.
In 1884, Gunness married Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson. They opened a confectionary shop that was not successful. It mysteriously burned down a year later and the couple collected insurance money. Some report that the union produced no children, but others say they had four children, two of whom died in infancy from acute colitis. The symptoms of colitis closely mirror many forms of poisoning, and both children were insured. The couple collected on both deaths.
Her husband died in July of 1900, on the exact day two life insurance policies overlapped. His death was ruled the result of an enlarged heart, but his relatives were certain she'd killed him for the insurance money. They demanded an inquest, but records don't show that much was actually done. She was awarded $8,500 (something like $240,000 today) with which she bought a large farm.
In 1901, she bought another house. While preparing to move, she became acquainted with a Norwegian-born widower, Peter Gunness. They married a year later. Peter's infant child died under suspicious circumstances while alone in the house with Belle. Peter himself met with a tragic accident thereafter. Belle collected insurance money on both deaths.
After that came a string of wealthy, eligible suitors, many of whom paid of her mortgages or other bills with the understanding that they would soon be wed. Most were never heard from again.
|Ray Lamphere -- Looks real friendly, doesn't|
Ray Lamphere, a farm hand she employed to help work her land, complicated things. He was in love with her, and continually got jealous of the suitors who showed up to court the rich widow. Eventually she fired him and they had several confrontations in the courtroom. Meanwhile, Lamphere started saying strange things to neighbors like, "Helgelien won't bother me no more. We fixed him for keeps."
In February 1908, Joe Maxson who was hired as Lamphere's replacement, awoke to the Gunness house burning around him. He opened the door and called to his employer and her four children, who were sleeping in the house. Getting no response, he jumped out of his second story window, barely escaping the fire, and ran for help.
A headless woman, assumed to be Gunness, was found in the house. Her head was never located. The four children were found burned in their beds.
Lamphere claimed he was no where near the house when it went up in flames, but a witness saw him running away from the house just before the fire started. Neighbors who viewed the headless body said there was no way it was Gunness. She stood at six feet tall and more than 200 pounds. The body was of a much smaller stature than that.
There was still no head, but Gunness' dentist said if any teeth could be found, he could identify her by dental records. After shifting debris, a piece of bridgework was found in the ashes. It contained two human teeth with roots still attached, along with porcelain teeth and gold crown work. The dentists identified then as belonging to Gunness.
Then Joe Maxsom reported something really disturbing: Gunness had ordered him to dump wheel barrows full of dirt in a fenced section of the farm where the hogs were fed. She said she just wanted to level the ground.
Digging commenced a few days later, and while the actual number is unknown, as many as twelve bodies were unearthed. Most of the remains couldn't be identified because of decomposition and crude recovery methods, but soon reports of other possible victims began pouring in.
Lamphere was tried for arson and murder. He was convicted of the first, but acquitted of the second. He was sentenced to twenty years in state prison. He died of tuberculosis in 1909. In 1910, a clergyman present at Lamphere's death came forward with Lamphere's apparent death bed confession. The clergyman claimed Lamphere had sworn Gunness was still alive. He said he'd never killed anyone, but had helped her bury many of her victims.
"When a victim arrived, she made him comfortable, charming him and cooking a large meal. She then drugged his coffee and when the man was in a stupor, she split his head with a meat chopper. Sometimes she would simply wait for the suitor to go to bed and then enter the bedroom by candlelight and chloroform her sleeping victim. A powerful woman, Gunness would then carry the body to the basement, place it on a table, and dissect it. She then bundled the remains and buried these in the hog pen and the grounds about the house. Belle had become an expert at dissection, thanks to instruction she had received from her second husband, the butcher Peter Gunness. To save time, she sometimes poisoned her victims' coffee with strychnine. She also varied her disposal methods, sometimes dumping the corpse into the hog-scalding vat and covering the remains with quicklime. Lamphere even stated that if Belle was overly tired after murdering one of her victims, she merely chopped up the remains and, in the middle of the night, stepped into her hog pen and fed the remains to the hogs.
The handyman also cleared up the mysterious question of the headless female corpse found in the smoking ruins of Gunness' home. Gunness had lured this woman from Chicago on the pretense of hiring her as a housekeeper only days before she decided to make her permanent escape from La Porte. Gunness, according to Lamphere, had drugged the woman, then bashed in her head and decapitated the body, taking the head, which had weights tied to it, to a swamp where she threw it into deep water. Then she chloroformed her children, smothered them to death, and dragged their small bodies, along with the headless corpse, to the basement.
She dressed the female corpse in her old clothing, and removed her false teeth, placing these beside the headless corpse to assure it being identified as Belle Gunness. She then torched the house and fled. Lamphere had helped her, he admitted, but she had not left by the road where he waited for her after the fire had been set. She had betrayed her one-time partner in crime in the end by cutting across open fields and then disappearing into the woods. Some accounts suggest that Lamphere admitted that he took her to Stillwell (a town about nine miles from La Porte) and saw her off on a train to Chicago." (Source)Based on Lamphere's story, Gunness may have killed as many as 42 men, and amassed more than 250,000 dollars in insurance money (today that would just over $6 million).
Gunness' final fate was never determined. For years, there were sightings of her. She became known as a real, female Bluebeard, a part of American criminal folklore. The headless body, assumed to be hers, was never positively identified, and was buried near her first husband. It has since been exhumed in the hopes that DNA might provide some answers. So far, there hasn't been enough on either side for comparison, so the mystery remains unsolved.
What do you think? Do you think Gunness faked her own death, or was that her body in the fire?